Bottle with Coronavirus Vaccine and syringe with Novavax logo on white background
Have you ever wondered why the world started to use mRNA vaccines all of a sudden ever since the COVID-19 pandemic? Where did the traditional methods of vaccination go? This sudden shift in vaccine technology didn’t just happen by chance but was a result of years of scientific research and experiments. As the world faced an unprecedented pandemic, the traditional method of vaccination, while reliable, was slower and less effective to adapt to mutating virus than the mRNA vaccines, which is faster and more flexible when combating COVID-19 viruses. However, the traditional methods have returned! The new Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is an old-fashioned, protein-based approach to vaccination, a contrast to the mRNA technology used in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The Novavax vaccine especially targets the SARS-CoV-2 variant XBB.1.5, which is a descendent of Omicron. 

Novavax’s Differences: A Protein-Based Approach
Unlike the mRNA vaccines, which use modified viral genetic materials to cause an immune response, Novavax relies on a more traditional approach which injects proteins that resemble SARS-CoV-2 directly into the body. This method has over 30 years of application in vaccines such as the Hepatitis B Vaccine. The Novavax Company also uses insect cells, such as moth cells, to produce SARS-CoV-2’s unique spike proteins. The reason why Novavax researchers use moth cells is because of its efficiency in producing spike proteins. They first select the desired genes that create the spike proteins, and then they put these kinds of genes into a baculovirus, which is basically an insect virus. The baculovirus will then infect moth cells and replicate rapidly inside them creating lots of spike proteins. Finally, the researchers will extract and use the spike proteins for vaccines. Additionally, Novavax’s formula also includes Matrix-M, a compound from Chilean Soapbark Trees, which will further enhance our immune system’s response to the spike protein.

Targeted Variants and Efficiency:                                                                    Novavax vaccines are developed specifically for the XBB.1.5 variant, and they are not optimized for the newer Eris and Pirola variants. However, vaccinologist Gregory Poland notes that all vaccinations, including Pfizer and Moderna, have all been “chasing the tail” of the emerging variants all over the pandemic, so Novavax is not alone in this situation. Additionally, all of the vaccine boosters seem to be able to provide some protection against new variants, but protein vaccinations are way slower to adapt to the new variants than mRNA vaccines. In terms of efficiency, according to infectious disease researcher Kirsten Lyke, Novavax stands on par with other mRNA vaccines. It is 55% effective in preventing COVID-19 symptoms and 31% effective at preventing infections, and this is very similar to the mRNA vaccines.

Protein Synthesis Elongation.png (mRNA coding protein)

Side Effects and Availability:
When it comes to side effects, the Novavax booster demonstrates a lower risk of myocarditis(inflammation of heart muscle) or pericarditis(inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) compared to mRNA vaccines, but of course, it is not entirely risk-free. It also tends to have fewer side effects like muscle fatigue and nausea post-vaccination. A huge advantage of the Novavax vaccine is its availability, it can be stored in a typical refrigerator, making it considerably more accessible than mRNA vaccines, which require subfreezing storage. The Novavax booster is now available in pharmacies across the country, with the CDC recommending having two doses that are eight weeks apart for unvaccinated people.

Which one should I get?
Both the protein vaccines and the mRNA vaccines can help you fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and neither is better than the other. The mRNA vaccine has a faster efficiency in preventing COVID and has a higher adaptability to new variants, while the Novavax vaccine uses a more familiar technology, has a more accessible storage requirement, and has a lower risk of side effects post-vaccination. But no matter which kind of vaccine you think is better, Lyke suggests that the most important thing is to “pick one and get it.”

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-CoV-2)

Connecting to AP Biology:
In AP Biology, we’ve learned about how our bodies fight bacterial and viral infections and specifically talked about how the spike proteins on SARS-CoV-2 work to attack our bodies. When our body first recognizes the SARS-CoV-2 virus, white blood cells like Macrophages and Dendritic cells will engulf the virus, breaking it down into small pieces and displaying it to Helper T cells on their MHC proteins. The Helper T cells will then release Cytokines which will trigger both the Cell-mediated response and the Humoral response of your immune system. These responses will ultimately kill most of the bacteria/viruses in your body. Additionally, your immune system will then remember the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and if you ever get affected again, your immune system will immediately respond to it. Understanding how vaccines help your body defend against real viruses links directly to our studies on the human body’s defense mechanisms against foreign pathogens.

Leave a Comment!
COVID-19 is a years-long pandemic that still hasn’t ended today, I think it is really important for everyone to know how they can protect themselves through modern technologies and minimize the impact of the virus. I am also intrigued by how fast different vaccine technologies have evolved to help mankind to combat the virus. How do you feel about the re-introduction of protein-based vaccines like Novavax? Do you think this will change the public’s preferences on COVID-19 vaccines? Feel free to leave a comment below and we can discuss more about this topic! For more information on this post, go to ScientificAmerican.com for the latest research and updates.

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